GARETH Maybin will be flying the flag for East Antrim as the Irish Open gets under way at Royal Portrush today (Thursday).
It promises to be a memorable week’s golf with fans from Newtownabbey, Carrick and Larne among the thousands set to descend on the stunning north coast for the biggest sporting event Northern Ireland has seen in years.
It’s the first time the competition has been staged here since it was held at Belvoir Park in 1953.
A total of 10 players who have tasted Major glory – including our very own Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and current Open champion Darren Clarke - will go up against a string of seasoned European Tour competitors and Ryder Cup players. Among the big names taking part is reigning US PGA champion Keegan Bradley as well as John Daly who won The Open at St Andrews in 1995. Double Masters winner José María Olazábal, who will captain Europe against the United States at September’s Ryder Cup in America, will also be competing. So too will Scotland’s Paul Lawrie and Pádraig Harrington who won back-to-back Open titles in 2007 and 2008 as well as the PGA Championship later that year.
Locally, however, the spotlight is well and truly on 31-year-old Maybin. Despite his honest assessment that his record at the Irish Open is “horrific”, the Ballyclare man has good form when it comes to playing at Portrush. He has fond memories of winning the North of Ireland Championship at the course back in 2002.
Speaking to the Times ahead of the tournament, Maybin said he can’t wait to get out there and get his challenge under way.
“My preparations are going well. Everything feels pretty good. I was up at Portrush a couple of weeks ago to have a look at the course and it’s coming along nicely and I think it will be in fantastic condition when it all starts.
“I have played the course before as an amateur and I won the North there, so I have some good memories from up there and I just really can’t wait for it to start. I think it will be a great spectacle.”
It’s been a mixed bag of results on the European Tour for Maybin of late. He missed the cut in the BMW Championship in Cologne and pulled out of qualifying at Sunningdale for next month’s Open Championship. But he feels there is room for optimism as he prepares to compete on home soil.
“I’m fairly confident of performing well,” he said. “I have had quite a slow season, but, I feel over the last month or so that my scores haven’t really reflected how I have played. If I can just make a few putts it will all come together.
“I’m keeping on top of every part of my game which will be very important around Portrush. It’s a place where you have to drive the ball very well and shoot and putt it good so it will be a good test.”
He added: “It’s such a fair test because if you play well, you will score well. It’s location and the history of the place; holding championships such as the North - it all makes it special. The scenery around the course is just unbelievable.
“No doubt the weather may have a part to play. When I was last up there conditions were calm but if you get the slightest bit of breeze up there it becomes a whole different animal.
“I think this will be my fourth Irish Open. My record in the event is pretty horrific but I will be going out to put that right.”
Maybin is impressed by the list of high-profile names coming to play at the event but feels that extra little bit of course knowledge just might just be the special ingredient in the mix which could stand the local competitors in good stead.
“There is a lot of guys coming over for the event which is great. To have Keegan Bradley and (John) Daly playing at the Irish Open is fantastic.
“But all the local guys have a big chance. We have played the course so often and know it so well that I think it will be great for the spectators to watch and hopefully one of us Northern Irish lads can win it.”
“For me, it would mean the world to win the event. Outside the majors it is the one I have always wanted to win because I am from here. It would be cool to be in contention and have my mates and my family there because they would enjoy that. Hopefully, I can give them a good week.”
One thing he can rely on is a strong backing from everyone connected to Ballyclare Golf Club.
“It’s is my home club. It’s where I practice and play with my friends when I’m at home. There should be an incredible amount of support coming up to Portrush from the club so, hopefully, I can give them something to shout about.”
Should Maybin find himself out of contention come the business end of the tournament, he reckons a fellow Northern Irishman could be the one to watch.
“Obviously, all the big names will be up there, the likes of Graham (McDowell) and Rory (McIlroy) and Darren (Clarke) have a good history at Portrush but somebody who is very underrated, and who probably doesn’t get enough credit for the success that he has had, is Michael Hoey. He is phenomenal on links and I would definitely think he has a big opportunity this week,” he said.
Report by John Gillespie | Twitter: @Times_Sport